1997 was somewhat of a banner year for genre films with titles like The Fifth Element, Men In Black, Starship Troopers, and a little movie directed by Robert Zemeckis named Contact which managed to garner some attention amongst all the would-be blockbusters. It is a film adaptation of Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel of the same name; Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan wrote the story outline for the film. Alien visitation was already a well-known sub-genre at the time, but Contact managed to teach an old dog a few new tricks by focusing the events of the film’s narrative on its main protagonist and what she was going through in a world and chosen field dominated by men. Contact is an intelligent, enjoyable and entertaining film that twenty years later still maintains a lot of its appeal.
Jodie Foster turns in a nuanced and memorable portrayal as the film’s protagonist, Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway, a SETI scientist who finds strong evidence of extraterrestrial life and is chosen to make first contact. Despite being a strong, intelligent, and capable woman, the film portrays Arroway’s life as continually being influenced by men that both assist and impede her progress. The film also stars Matthew McConaughey as the preacher man that eventually wins her heart, James Woods as an ambitious, hostile, politically motivated prosecutor, Tom Skerritt as the politically savvy scientist that keeps hijacking all the credit for Ellie’s work, John Hurt is delightful as Ellie’s eccentric billionaire guardian angel, along with great performances by William Fichtner, Angela Bassett, Rob Lowe, Jake Busey, and David Morse.
Contact does a good job of depicting just how backwards we still are in the face of such an amazing discovery, and how much we are still slaves to our anthropology and the huge role religion and superstitions still play in our decision making and development as a species. At the same time, Contact has a hint of Spielbergian optimism in its DNA which gives the film an undeniable hopeful message. We don’t learn much about the aliens except that they cared enough to give us a glimpse of what is out there if only we can hang in there long enough without killing ourselves.
A lot of fuss was made about the film’s ambiguously optimistic conclusion; did she stay or did she go? I am, of course, in the camp that says she did make a voyage across the galaxy and of course the aliens were real. Anyone that thinks otherwise is missing the point.
Of course, on the surface at least, it appears Contact was designed to appeal to a female audience. One significant question Contact raises, is it possible to make a science fiction movie that woman can enjoy? I submit this may be that film.